NORTH CAROLINA ‘ The press is often referred to as the Fourth Estate, separate from government and a watchdog for the benefit of readers.
Joe Wilbur, executive editor of The Carolinian at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, says school officials are obstructing the guardian role the newspaper plays.
Wilbur said if the college has its way, the paper will return to the role it used to play ‘ that of a public relations tool. He said school officials have been unhappy with the new direction the paper has taken in producing a more well-rounded, hard-hitting publication.
University officials claim content has nothing to do with their complaints about the paper, and that poor business practices have prompted changes in the hiring and firing of editors. They also have said Wilbur’s concern about the newspaper being connected to the university public relations office and its association with the college’s media board, a group made up of university and community members to oversee the paper, are unfounded.
After becoming editor in January, Wilbur said The Carolinian made major strides to take on tougher issues and cover topics of concern to student readers, including coverage of two students who were arrested for prostitution and the assault of a Lebanese student following Sept. 11.
‘The paper … was really just serving as a public relations tool for the university,’ he said. ‘I wrote the story [about the Lebanese student who was beaten], and it broke, and all the sudden people were reading the paper again. There was news in the paper.’
That was the turning point for the university and the paper, he said. Wilbur, then news editor, and the editor were called into a meeting with campus officials, who questioned content choices.
‘They said ‘ that at one time this paper was a paper that students could send home to their parents with pride, because it made the university look good,’ Wilbur said. ‘And I said well, I feel that there’s no newspaper in America that makes you feel warm and fuzzy 24 hours a day.’
Problems between the Office of Student Life and The Carolinian increased this spring when Wilbur was asked to sign an agreement before the media board would rehire him as editor. Wilbur had to promise to be accountable for all advertising revenue and business practices, to prepare a budget for the fiscal year and to meet with the student life-appointed adviser as often as the adviser felt was necessary.
The university argued that the editor is more of a manager than an editor ‘ a position that requires overseeing editorial content as well as advertising and business matters.
Bruce Michaels, director of student life, said it is Wilbur’s responsibility to oversee the production of the entire newspaper, and the media board and adviser April Patterson expect that of whomever they choose as executive editor. He said the media board was not concerned with content.
‘When we became aware of problems, albeit some problems that Joe inherited when he became editor in January ‘ of lack of collection of ads, of not being able to have enough money in their account to pay their bills ‘ I did expect [Patterson] to ride herd on Joe, who then in turn was to ride herd on his folks, to turn that around,’ Michaels said.
Michaels said the contract Wilbur was asked to sign came directly from the media board, not from the student life office.
Wilbur has since brought his concerns to local media and Chancellor Patricia Sullivan. Sullivan asked Vice Chancellor Carol Disque to look into the issue. Disque found that Wilbur’s concerns were not legitimate.
‘I’m not able to find merit in his claims based on the information that I have right now,’ she said.
Wilbur said he would continue to fight against censorship and still cover controversial issues. He said he would like to see more student representatives on the media board and those with an interest in the university’s public relations excised from the board and the running of the paper.
‘I’m hoping that now that’s out there, and people outside the university are looking at it and watching this process, things are going to go the way we want them to,’ he said.